“The Rolling Stone” is a powerful indictment of violent homophobia in Uganda

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Scene from
"The Rolling Stone" with Ato Blankson-Wood and Robert Gilbert at Lincoln Center Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater

This play is a strong painful work that must be seen

Normally, I do not review plays presented in New York City. However, I was recently invited to attend a performance of Lincoln Center Theater’s newest offering, The Rolling Stone by playwright Chris Urch. Mr. Urch, an English actor and writer, has created a taut drama focusing on the effects of homophobia on one family. It is a strong, painful work that must be seen by anyone who considers themselves to be a serious theatregoer—or by anyone who is concerned with the often-fatal repression of homosexuals worldwide, fueled by conservative American “missionaries.”

Scene from "The Rolling Stone with James Udom and Ato Blankson
“The Rolling Stone with James Udom and Ato Blankson is at the Lincoln Center Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater

The Rolling Stone is set in Kampala, Uganda’s capitol city and largest city. Joe (James Udom), a Christian preacher, has just been named to head his church. Both of his younger siblings, brother Dembe (Ato Blankson-Wood) and sister Wimmie (Latoya Edwards) are in school. Unknown to his family, Dembe has fallen in love with Sam (Robert Gilbert), an Irishman working in Uganda. Added to the mix are Mama (Myra Lucretia Taylor), one of the church elders, and her daughter Naome (Adenike Thomas), suffering from traumatic muteness, whom everyone has assumed will marry Dembe. When a tabloid paper starts publishing front-page pictures of suspected homosexuals along with their names and addresses, tensions and suspicions arise around Dembe. Sam offers to take Dembe with him back to Ireland, but that would mean Dembe leaving his family behind in Uganda. In the atmosphere raised by the newspaper’s articles, if Dembe were to be named, or if he left with Sam, it would bring guilt by association to his family, with possible violent repercussions, possibly costing Joe his position in the church and lowering his family’s social status.

Scene from "The Rolling Stone" with Adenike Thomas and Ato Blankson-Wood
“The Rolling Stone” with Adenike Thomas and Ato Blankson-Wood at Lincoln Center Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

The play is based on the true story of the actual Ugandan tabloid weekly The Rolling Stone, which in October 2010 published a front-page story listing the pictures, names, and addresses of 100 homosexuals in Uganda alongside a yellow banner reading “Kill Them.” One of those listed, Ugandan LGBT rights advocate David Kato, was subsequently beaten to death with a hammer. After a second such story was published listing additional names, photos, and addresses, the group Sexual Minorities Uganda petitioned the Uganda High Court to take action against the paper. The Court ruled that The Rolling Stone had violated the privacy rights of private individuals by publishing their information, and that the newspaper must stop publishing such information, shut down, and pay each of the plaintiffs 1.5 million Ugandan shillings ($406.62 at current exchange rates) plus court costs.

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The level of acting and directing in The Rolling Stone is first-rate. Director Saheem Ali, himself queer and a former resident of Kenya, guides a talented cast through a tense journey in which Dembe’s family and friends mirror Ugandan society. James Udom, Ato Blankson-Wood, and Latoya Edwards portray a family whose devotion to each other is nearly palpable but riven by the suspicion of homosexuality swirling around the youngest brother. Mr. Udom’s Joe is a particularly powerful creation, devoted to his deeply-held religious beliefs yet torn by the knowledge of his brother’s sexuality. Myra Lucretia Taylor’s Mama hides her own secrets beneath the façade of a genial church lady. Adenike Thomas’s portrayal of Naome wordlessly conveys her longing for a normal life with her beloved childhood friend Dembe as her husband, making her single anguished spoken word all the more powerful for the banked emotions behind it. Finally, Robert Gilbert’s Sam is a well-meaning yet somewhat naive white man in African society, wanting to save the man he has grown to love but helpless to prevent the coming storm. Special mention goes to dialect coach Barbara Rubin in getting the sounds of Ugandan English into the mouths and minds of the cast.

Lincoln Center Theater’s design team has come up with a set that depends highly on the amount of imagination the audience brings to the production. Arnulfo Maldonado’s simple circular main set with a rectangular rising and falling center element becomes, among other things, a boat on a lake, a bed, and an altar, as well as the interior of the church, the family home, and Sam’s apartment. Mr. Maldonado is richly assisted by the lighting of Japhy Weideman and the music and sound designs of Justin Ellington. Dede Ayite’s costumes display a fine blend of African motifs and colors with Western styles.

The Rolling Stone is a biting dramatic look at homophobia in Uganda and echoed in the United States and around the world. The ending left me wondering if love and faith are enough to combat unthinking hatred fanned by ignorance. I strongly urge you to experience The Rolling Stone before its limited engagement ends.

The Rolling Stone is presented by Lincoln Center Theater at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in New York City through August 25, 2019. For tickets and information, visit www.LCT.org.